My Friday Thing. Chapter 1, disclaimer:
Okay, just so we’re clear, this story is being posted a chapter at a time every Friday – this novel is being put here because it CANNOT be offered up for publication, dig? It has no First Rights left. That’s because when I wrote this 10 years ago, I put it on a web fiction site. It’s been read, it’s been downloaded, it’s a done deal. And I say this for the benefit of any young writers out there thinking this is a really cool thing to do with their debut novels.
Don’t. If you’ve written something good enough for publication, don’t show it to the world like this! I’m doing so because this novel is not good enough for publication – it served a fantastic purpose for me at the time, and I’ll forever think fondly of it because of that. But I will never post original, never-before-seen, intended for sending to an agent fiction on the blog.
And again, I’m just doing this for the helluvit. I don’t expect comments or replies or anything, so no worries. It might be fun for some to see where I was as a writer 10 years ago. It might be fun for some to read this and think “Damn, she really does suck!” And it might be fun for some to while away the minutes in the bathroom. And if it’s no fun for you, I’ll trunicate each post like this *crosses fingers that this works* Oh, and one more thing – there are 22 chapters. You won’t see The End until April 24th!
When The Stars Walk Backwards
It was a nightmare. Maybe the kind you expect and completely prepare for, but a nightmare nevertheless. And it was going to last a bit longer, apparently. The ship wasn’t due to leave for another 6 hours and he’d been packing for a while now, slowly weeding through what he could call his own and what she was insisting existed prior to them. It was becoming more and more apparent why they’d never entered into a contract together. In fact, he was beginning to wonder what he’d ever found attractive about her in the first place. Well, aside from the physical. And physical she was, ever since he came home and announced his plans.
Funny how she was only breaking his stuff.
“I’ll never understand you, Mac Brennan.” Cassandra Shay stormed again into the sleeping room and tossed another object onto the bed, where Mac’s belongings were being unceremoniously stacked. “I’ll just never understand you. You had a career!”
“‘Had’, being the operative word.” Mac reached out to examine what had been added to the pile. It was a stone carving the size of his fist, an abstract representation of a creature he couldn’t remember the name of that someone–Cassandra maybe–had bought him a year ago. God, had he known her that long? She hadn’t changed a bit. “The war’s been over for three months.”
“You’re a hero. The other captains from your section are taking prestigious positions right here on Io Station. You could too.” Her voice fell dramatically from the angry shouts to something much more sultry, trying another angle when the tantrum failed. “You could take that teaching position at the academy with me. They said they had openings for all the pilots I used to fly with. And Earth has more room for flight instructors than ever.”
Mac glanced up, not falling for her change of tone. Cassandra was a beautiful woman, tall and thin, with dark red hair cascading over her smooth shoulders. The skin-tight outfit she’d chosen that morning flashed color in the artificial lights. Like him, Cassandra had been a pilot since her teenage years, when the long war had just begun. She still possessed the fire that first drew him to share his living quarters with the young lieutenant, but that fire wasn’t enough anymore.
“Cass, I’ve just spent the last twenty years of my life at war. Fighting battles that weren’t my own, living most of my life in the cold nothing of space.” He tossed the stone carving back onto the pile and ran a hand over his dark, short-cropped hair. “I’m not going to spend the rest of it teaching kids how to do the same.”
Unaffected by his answer, Cassandra stepped closer and reached for his shirt collar. “The war was on for twenty years. Peace has only been official for three months. That’s hardly enough time to make such a permanent decision and you know it. Besides, teaching fighters is a technicality. There won’t be another war in our lifetime. You’re too good-looking to be hiding out somewhere that far from humanity.”
Mac stood still, looking down into her light green eyes. There was a time those eyes and everything below them could make him change his mind in a heartbeat. But that time had long passed. “You can still come with me, you know. They have room.”
A derisive sound escaped perfectly rounded lips. “They’re colonists. They’re going to use you for the flight out there, then what? It’s a one way trip, to some backwater planet barely habitable with what . . . a couple-hundred people on the whole damn thing?” Cassandra’s hands pushed between the buttons of Mac’s shirt, moving over his smooth chest as she pressed her body closer to his lean, muscled frame. “Once you get there, you’ll be surrounded by colonists with nowhere to go.”
“That’s the idea.” Mac made no move to respond to her advances. He’d decided even before meeting the commander of the group that he was going to take the job. There was nothing left for him here but old war stories and a government pension, which for a man in his early thirties amounted to a teaching position at best. “It’s time to live. I’ve seen enough killing and politics to last several lifetimes. Don’t you want to get out of this lifestyle and learn what it was we all fought for while we’re still young enough to enjoy it?”
“We’re both plenty young enough for a lot of things,” Cassandra purred, pressing her body against his and letting her hands caress his stomach. “They’re mudskippers. I’m surprised the Bureau’s giving them the resources now. With so many dead on all sides, we don’t have need for colonies anymore.” She laughed shortly, shaking her head with a flurry of hair. “It will take generations to replenish the population levels lost in the war. Why don’t you stay here, and we’ll work on doing our part for the Bureau?”
That’s all there had ever been between them. After watching a ship explode beside you in the cold night of space, sex could alleviate some of the shock, dull a portion of the pain when that ship contained a close friend or good fighting companion. But without a contract to produce a child, it was no more meaningful than eating breakfast or brushing your teeth. Not with her, anyway. Mac had been in love once. This wasn’t it.
“If you want a child, Cass, you’d better find someone to contract with.” Mac pushed her gently but firmly away from him. His body hadn’t even responded to the touch this time, finally agreeing with his head that it was over between them. “You and I don’t owe each other anything.”
Anger flashed in her cold green eyes. “They’ll use you, then alienate you. Colonists haven’t changed, they still hate the military, still think only of furthering their own vision. You’ll be the only one there not raised and trained for their work. They’ll hate you. Then what will you have?”
“Peace and quiet.”
“And boredom.” Cass folded her arms in front of her chest. “You’ll spend the first year happy enough, reading your books and watching the clouds drift by. But then what? You’re only thirty-five years old, what will you do with your life?”
He shrugged, smiling slightly. “Explore. One of my conditions was that they set aside one of the low atmosphere flyers they use to explore over land for my personal use. Those things have solar batteries with a small nuclear core. Unlimited fuel, if used wisely. That should keep me busy for a bit.” Mac resumed his packing, shoving the stone carving inside. Most of his belongings were already packed away on the transport he’d be piloting out into the blackness of deep space, waiting for him in orbit as it filled with colonists and their gear. “They sent three-hundred people out there just before the war began. The second group was supposed to join them a year later, but you know how the Bureau is. War takes precedence.” He stuffed another of the warm, long-sleeved ship shirts into his pack and shook his head. “They’re twenty years late and going with an entirely new team, so there’s been plenty of time to settle the original camp. Hell, I might even find them more civilized and populated than this rat hole.”
“Rat hole?” Cassandra paced to the far end of their bedroom, flinging her hair to one side of her slender neck. “You were born and raised on a station just like this.”
Had she always been this clueless? “Cass, I’m going.” Mac held out a hand in a half-shrug. “There’s more than enough room, if you want to come along.” He looked back at his packing. “But no amount of arguing, cajoling, or seducing is going to change my mind.” Another box fit inside the bag before he had to seal it and reach for a second. “You want sex, that’s fine. There are plenty of guys around here more than willing to accommodate you.” God knew, he’d done his part.
“And what do you want, huh? What is it that Mac Brennan wants that he hasn’t got right here?”
Mac refused to look up. She wasn’t going to understand, and he wasn’t going to change his mind. This dance was getting tiresome. “Cass, you weren’t in that bar.” He shoved his spare service kit into the new bag and reached for a pair of shoes. “Pilots still wearing their ship suits, telling the same old battle stories. Ground troopers getting drunk for no other reason.” The shoes were shoved into the bag with the force of the memory only two days old. Even out of uniform, he’d been given the same looks of disdain as the other former soldiers. “You didn’t see the looks they were getting from the civilians.”
“You’re not them.”
“Yes, I am them. And so are you.” He hefted the second bag and judged it able to hold more. “We had a purpose in the war, a job to do. Now that it’s done we all have to adjust and find a new one.” It felt a little odd, knowing that what he was packing would have to last a lifetime. “No one’s impressed by what we did, Cass. It’s a common aftereffect of war, no matter what the reason or how long it lasted. When the fighting’s over, the people want to forget it ever happened.” Three more pairs of the fiber-based, dark green pants he liked made it into the bag before it reached capacity. “I can’t blame them.”
“What’s left for us, then? If we spent our lives fighting their battles, are we to be discarded when it’s over?” Cassandra’s voice fell to nearly a whisper, then rose again. “We won the war!”
Mac shook his head and carried a bag to the door. “The Bureau won the war. We just fought the battles.” He looked up, gazing into eyes that were slowly losing their flame. “These colonists have the right idea, you know. One way trip, too far out for communication with any of the other colonies or stations. No Bureau involvement. It’ll be generations before non-military science makes much progress again, so the chance of anyone inventing round trip travel that far out, or the Bureau getting their politics out there any time soon, are remote at best.” That was something he’d been looking forward to, lately. “These people paid a small fortune getting permission to use the Particle Launch. There isn’t going to be another group wanting to head out there for years, possibly generations.” He paused, wondering if there was any chance she’d change that stubborn mind of hers. It was doubtful. “It’s retirement, Cass. Life. Just fly this group out to join the first, settle into my new job as Head of Security, and watch the grass grow.” He sighed, seeing no spark of interest in her eyes. “That is, if they have grass.”
“You don’t even know anything about that place.”
It was over. All but the leaving, anyway. Mac picked up the last two heavy bags and carried them out to the living room to add to the rest of the boxes and personal items he was taking. “I know it’s M-class, with earth gravity. One large moon, the other three planets sharing the sun’s orbit can’t support life. I know the original colonists have been waiting twenty years for this group to join them, and have had plenty of time to settle in.”
Cass stepped forward and grabbed his arm. “Did you know these colonists haven’t been able to find a pilot since before the war ended? No one wants to make the trip, just to babysit a load of mudskippers then get stuck with them. Did they tell you the group you’re taking was supposed to be 2,000 people, but no one wants to go? Did you know if you get out there, and find some sort of planetary catastrophe, you’ll die there?” Her grip tightened. “It’s a six month flight, Brennan. A one way trip. Then what? You can’t ever come back. And that damned Launch just might throw you in the wrong direction. One parsec off, and you’ll drift in deep space forever.”
He pulled his arm free. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”
“Idiot!” With a flash of red hair and flaming eyes, Cassandra turned and stormed out of the room.
“I’ll take that as a ‘No’.” Mac spoke to her back as he watched her go. He had to admit, if she’d agreed to come along, his new choice would have lost some small bit of its appeal. Her anger wasn’t for his leaving, but for her own loss. Well, she’d have to find another arm to drape around her at social gatherings. Now he was free to put the past behind him, and get on with something he could call a life.
After attaching the last of the destination tags to the boxes, bags and bundles of personal belongings he’d piled in the living room, Mac dialed the number for transport and left the front door key code open. There were still a few things to take care of, and he didn’t have time to let the men in for the bags. Five hours before takeoff, and he still hadn’t signed his consent forms.
The papers were barely visible from under the couch, but Mac found them all. Thin plastic sheets, still crisp and colorful, showing what little data anyone had on planet Beta 9. Even that wasn’t much. Mac walked to the kitchen and made some coffee, silently praying this new colony had found a substitute for the stimulating beverage. Or, dare he hope, the planet could support the real thing? All evidence suggested it could, with a climate much like Earth, mild seasons, good soil and a bounty of native plant life. Of course, his knowledge of Earth was rather limited, having only visited that planet a handful of times, and Ergo 2 only once.
And then there was the time difference. This data printout was based on an exploration beacon that was sent out in 2308, taking eight months to arrive, one year to record data, then a whopping twenty years return trip without benefit of the Particle Launch that sent it out. After two years of digesting the information, a group of colonists left Earth space to stake the claim and establish the planet. But before the second group could launch to join them, the war began. So, all of the data Mac was reading was forty-three years old, with no contact or updates since. How much could a planet change in that time? Barring complete annihilation, just about anything was possible. Hell, even annihilation was possible.
“Wonderful thoughts, Brennan,” Mac muttered to himself. He shook off the thought with a military swiftness and scanned the documents for places requiring his signature.
There were the usual chapters on responsibility, liability and various disabilities. Not much variation from the standard Bureau form, so he signed them after a quick look. Then came the Bureau’s Right of Discovery, claiming a percentage of anything you happened to find that they may want. Well, they’d have to get there in order to take anything, and that wasn’t likely to happen in his lifetime. Following that was an entire page on the proper and improper methods of communicating with alien sentient life. So far, with two planets, nearly two-hundred stations orbiting other worlds, and deep space probe ships still spanning the darkness, nothing had been found that even resembled alien sentient life. He signed the page without a second thought.
After that was a new form: Resident Extinction Prevention. It wasn’t more than three paragraphs that seemed to have been added quickly, most likely a new Bureau edict slapped on prior to mission approval and required before takeoff. It was simple and simply stated.
“No colony or exploration expedition will, for any reason, cause or instigate the extinction of any form of life, animal, mineral, vegetable or other. If, due to native populations, human life is threatened, those humans affected will find whatever means plausible to co-exist or adapt to the situation. If adaptation or co-existence is not possible, said human life will exit the planet.”
Following the last sentence were all the official stamps, seals, and warrants the Bureau and its extensions had ever developed. The next page held a small explanation claiming the catastrophe of D-48 as the reason behind this new edict. He remembered that happening back when he was just a kid. D-48 had been a promising planet, fully able to support human life and the colony of fifteen-hundred that was sent out to establish it. A year after it was colonized, someone had discovered a plant growth killing all the crops. Within months, the scientific community had created a pesticide capable of killing the native parasite. It wasn’t until the fungus died off that it was identified as the sole source of nutrients for every form of life on D-48. Five years after it’s colonization, the planet was lifeless and uninhabitable.
Mac sighed, then swallowed the last of his coffee and twirled the stylus in his hand. After this, there’d be no turning back. He’d already signed the agreement forms for the job and worked out his negotiations for equipment and position once there. Waiting for him here, as a hero of a twenty year war no one wanted to remember, was a teaching position or Station Security post. Neither of which appealed to him. Teaching was fine, if it focused on life and living and the future of mankind. But all that was available for him was military training of the young fighter-wannabes. Security was acceptable, if you didn’t mind life on one of these cramped, cold stations surrounded by the dregs of society. Mac had his fill of station life growing up. It was time for a change. Time to see the universe he’d just fought long and hard for. Time to settle down, on a planet, and experience life the way nature intended. Keeping the peace in a crowd of scientists whose usual arguments were limited to choosing a name for the newly discovered fungi or mountain range. It would make a nice change from watching people dying all around him. Okay, maybe it sounded a little dull, but he was ready for a change. It was time to give dull a try.
And it was time he got his ass in gear.
He signed the last form quickly, then walked the short distance to the desk terminal and dialed the number for the Bureau of Registry. After logging on and entering his ID, he inserted the forms and watched as they came up on screen for his confirmation.
“No turning back.” Mac entered the code that would seal his agreement, then flipped off the machine and turned around. Cassandra was nowhere to be seen, either convinced he wasn’t going through with it, or refusing a last goodbye. Either way, he was glad. He took one last look around the small dwelling, shook his head, and left.
* * * * *
“Reduce braking thrusters one third.”
“Confirmed, braking thrusters reduced one third,” the computer replied calmly. “Captain
Brennan, you have a communication request from Commander Alexander.”
“Accept.” Mac glanced at the screen next to his navigational console. A kind, gray haired man with smiling eyes looked up at him. “Commander, we should be in range of your planet in three hours.”
“Wonderful!” Commander Alexander’s face lit up even brighter. “Captain, will you join us for the first contact? It’s only fitting, after all, you being the man who brought us all here to our new world.”
“I wouldn’t miss it.” Mac smiled back, then watched the screen flash and go dark. He still had three hours to kill, but there was no way he could tolerate being surrounded by that much enthusiasm in a small room for so long. “Computer, confirm trajectory.”
“Course set at 0-195-825.25. Time to optimal angle 2.59 hours 58 minutes 43 seconds. Orbit will be achieved in 36.46 hours, Earth standard.”
Mac double-checked the figures while the computer relayed the information. With three-hundred lives in his hands, even a seasoned pilot didn’t trust the machines completely. Satisfied, he stood and stretched, letting tired back muscles stretch to their fullest.
“Computer, give me a reminder prior to contact, I’ll be aft.”
The six month flight was coming to an end, but the adventure was just beginning. Or nightmare, if he was to believe Cassandra. There was still a chance they’d find this planet uninhabitable due to any number of fates. But whatever the outcome, they’d have to adapt or die trying.
Mac began the long walk through the massive transport that would take him through the storage bays. It was a favorite pastime of his during the long voyage, and helped him stay focused on what lay ahead. The flight hadn’t consisted of much by way of piloting effort. One giant push from the Particle Launch, and it was do or die. The Bureau’s pride and joy of propulsion science, and it still boiled down to a giant slingshot, hurling a ship in what they hoped was the proper trajectory for their intended spec of the infinite universe. Mac’s job as pilot was basically to ride the wave, keep the ship on the course set by the Launch, and pray that course had been calculated correctly. It was everyone’s sincere hope now that the war had ended that science would get back on track developing more reliable methods of transportation instead of larger, faster, and more powerful war machines.
He for one wasn’t holding his breath.
The stern of the Kensington held another ship, the Aloft, that Mac held a special affection for. It was one of his few stipulations for giving up everything he knew to pilot these people out here. Originally a deep space exploration ship, the Aloft’s living quarters and research areas had been gutted for use as a shuttle. But after her job of ferrying colonists, their equipment, supplies, and everything else that wasn’t a structural part of the Kensington down to Beta 9, she would serve a better purpose.
He climbed on board and walked through the smaller ship, checking all the straps holding the first shipment of gear in place, examining the equipment, double checking the proper storage of machines and supplies. The upper level contained gear, strapped, buckled and secured for the flight, every inch of space utilized for the transport. Down below, where permanent cabinets and fixtures couldn’t be removed, they had installed benches for passengers and built small compartments that were padded and fitted to carry the more delicate scientific instruments.
This shuttle was going to be his when they were finished with it. It wouldn’t fly again, after the last trip up to the Kensington to set the final coordinates that would send the empty hulk into the sun. But once re-built, the Aloft would make an interesting home. A tad big, maybe, but unique nonetheless. He was hoping converting the shuttle would help ease his transition into this new life he’d chosen. That, and the two-man atmosphere ship he’d also managed to get included in his deal. Flying in air held a certain thrill for a space pilot. A thrill he’d only experienced three other times in his life.
“Captain Brennan, planetary contact in fifteen minutes.”
Mac flipped the tiny switch on his wrist unit and acknowledged the computer. “No turning back.” After one final glance around the shuttle, he left.
The trip back to the command center was much harder than he’d expected. Word had spread that the planet was coming into view, so all three-hundred colonists flooded the gangways, rushing to find the best place to view their new home. They were an odd lot, but no worse than Mac had expected. Scientists who’d devoted their lives to the colonization of alien worlds, many spending a lifetime in vain while all of humanity concentrated its efforts in killing each other. This lot, while highly trained, had no experience. Aside from a few members of the command staff, they had been teenagers when the war began, like him.
“Captain, just in time.” The beaming face of a man who’d waited a lifetime for this one single moment greeted Mac as he entered the command center. Commander Alexander had been scheduled to launch his team a year after the first colony group left. A trip that was put on hold far too long. “Ready for your first look?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be.” Mac smiled, more at the attitude of glee in the room than any true sense of anticipation on his part. By the end of this week, his piloting duties would be over. A new life awaited.
“Any signal from the AI yet?”
“Negative. It could be transmitting a reply too weak for our sensors to pick up.”
“If it’s still operating, that is.”
“They have no beacons in orbit, nothing’s showing up on the scans.”
“Could be that they’re on the dark side of the planet right now.”
“Doubtful. Wonder if they never got them launched?”
Mac stood near the back of the commotion, watching the screen and listening to the command staff check their sensors. They’d all waited six months for this, rehearsing procedures and discussing various outcomes. First contact would be visual, as soon as their ship cleared the orbit of the outermost planet blocking their path. Within a few hours of that, the colony’s Artificial Intelligence Unit should be able to make contact with their ship, and begin uploading the status of the original group. A few hours to digest that information, and they’d be close enough for voice contact with their new world.
“Here we go.” Mac’s words drew the attention of the entire room, then the vision on the large screen before them eclipsed everything else.
A planet appeared to rise over the horizon of the hulk they were passing, a bright spot on the dark canopy of space that grew into a jewel. Bright blue, with swirling clouds of very pale, bluish color. Half the size of Earth, Beta 9 looked pure and pristine in the darkness, lacking Earth’s many manmade satellites and polluted skies. It’s moon was huge in comparison to Earth’s, giving Beta 9 some of the largest tidal surges ever witnessed. A landscape of lavender and blue, it’s surface was only half water, the rest of the land comprised of mountains, grasslands and thick forests.
After the initial impact of seeing their new world for the first time, the room again filled with excitement and busy scientists, each scrambling to confirm his or her favorite theory even before they were close enough for a good look. Mac watched them all with amusement, recalling in his own mind what little they new of this new home. Large bodies of water, all fresh, were filled not with the blue-green algae of Earth, but a blue-purple algae that had tested as a high source of protein, capable of sustaining human life for months. Gone were the days of treating the water for consumption on every planet or station Mac had ever visited. A fact he was greatly looking forward to. He’d already worked out the plans to convert Aloft’s sanitary unit to accept a freshwater shower. Something hardly dreamt of before, where water was too scarce for the common military officer to afford to waste on bathing.
And air! Fresh air, not the recycled, stale stuff onboard ships and stations. Beta 9 had a perfect blend, seventy-five percent nitrogen, twenty-five percent oxygen, with just the right mix of assorted other gasses tossed in. Gravity equal to the Earth standard all artificial dwellings were set to. Soil that tested well for growing the plants humans and their livestock would require, as well as edible native plant life and freshwater seas teeming with life. And to his delight, Chief of Hydroponics Alex Warder had promised him coffee beans should have no trouble at all growing on the sunny hillsides.
The first probe’s reports were so glowing, Mac thought it almost criminal for the Bureau to drag its feet in allowing colonization. Distance was the most likely cause. If they couldn’t control the culture and export of whatever material the planet could provide, it wasn’t worth their while.
Which was just as well.
“Well, Captain, what do you think?” Commander Alexander joined Mac at the far end of the crowded room, still beaming with pleasure. Beside him, the group’s physician, Doctor Lise Weller, was smiling just as broadly.
“Looks good. Any contact with the group’s AI yet?”
“No, not yet. The poor thing’s probably got a weaker signal than we remember. The technology is more than twenty years old, after all.” Lise shook her head and sighed. “Not that ours is any better, just new.”
“We could be looking at any number of scenarios down there.” The commander put his arm around Lise’s shoulder, shaking his head. “We are late, after all. They may have given up on us years ago and gone about their business without a thought of visitors.”
Mac glanced at the two of them, wondering if there was any spark there. Dr. Weller was closer to the commander’s age than his own, and had been the man’s constant companion throughout the voyage, but until now, Mac hadn’t given much thought of them as a couple. So far, he’d managed to scope out ninety percent of the group and size them up accordingly. Several couples in contracts to produce children, several more considering short term contracts. Three women had asked Mac to contribute to the colony gene pool already, but he’d turned them down, echoes of Cassandra’s last tantrum still fresh in his mind.
“Whatever we find, it’ll be a nice change from this ship.” Mac gestured around the room.
“I hope you don’t regret your decision, Captain.” Lise stepped forward, looking up from her height of five feet. Aside from her job as group physician, she was also the resident psychologist. They’d enjoyed many hours discussing philosophy and society during the long voyage, but there were times Mac felt he was being analyzed.
He shook his head. “No regrets. Not yet, anyway.”
The commander laughed, then slapped Mac on the arm good-naturedly. “That’s the spirit.”
“Commander, first reports are coming in.”
Mac resumed his position at the edge of the commotion, watching with interest as the scanners relayed data about their approaching home. Lise kept him company, commenting on the high adrenaline levels among crew and command staff. Neither of them could recall seeing this many scientists so excited about such a small amount of information before. But then, Mac’s experience with the scientific community was rather limited, outside warfare. On the whole, he found this group tolerable, with a few exceptions that, once planet side, would be easier to avoid in the future. There were a few he genuinely enjoyed the company of: Lise, Commander Alexander, a couple of the engineers and a small handful of assorted builders and horticulturists.
The rest were exactly what Cassandra would have expected. But that didn’t matter. Soon, he’d have an entire planet to spread out on, a most likely very easy job, and all the fresh air a man could inhale.
“I’ve got it!”
The excited announcement drew Mac out of his thoughts and back into the room where Ron Christman, Head of Communications, was pointing to his console.
“Can you make anything of it?” Commander Alexander leaned over the man’s chair, peering at the readouts flashing across the screen.
“Not yet, I have to download it, then run it through our unit. But it’s working! Their AI is still functioning and sending us the data per orders.”
This was going to be interesting. Mac stepped closer, looking not at the small screen in front of Ron, but rather at the larger screen the data was being projected on for everyone to see. None of it was in order, and all the words flashed far too quickly to be read by any human eye, but something was causing the hairs on the back of Mac’s neck to tingle. Maybe it was the anticipation after such a long wait, maybe it was something else. Whatever it was made him run a hand over his short hair while he watched his and everyone else’s future flash across the screen.
Three hours later, Mac was seated in the forward cabin of the Kensington gently tapping the rim of his coffee cup. Surrounding him were Commander Alexander, Doctor Weller, Head of Communications Ron Christman, Head of Operations Bill Pursich, Head of Research and Development Linda Carlyle, and Chief Engineer Troy Hertz. Sheets of data lay strewn around the table while they all tried to digest what it meant.
“What does it say, exactly?” Mac asked, glancing at Ron.
“Word for word? It says…” Ron reached for the sheet and read it off. “Population of colony: One. Structure: Intact, consisting of materials originating from landing of first colonial expedition. Status of colony: Online.” He sighed and set down the thin sheet of plastic.
“So, they’re all dead?” Bill asked for the fourth time since they’d gathered in the small room.
“It says the colony has a population of one. But this unit was programmed to track the original colony as it would exist between landing and the arrival of the second unit.” Mac held up a hand as he explained, trying to maintain the level of moderate calm it had taken so long to achieve. “They probably moved on, settled more areas in the twenty years since arriving, and the computer is simply reporting the size and population of what it considers the first colony.” Why it had fallen on his shoulders to be the voice of reason, he wasn’t sure. But someone had to be.
Commander Alexander nodded. “That makes sense. This AI could be speaking literally, for whatever reason, and isn’t giving us the full picture.”
“Then how do you explain this?” Linda waved one of the data sheets in the air. “Reports of forty-two deaths within the first month. That’s not a computer jading the truth, that’s fact.”
“Yes, yes, a fact that could have any number of causes.” Lise reached out and patted her younger colleague’s hand. “Imagine being first down there, for just a moment. You’re the only humans on a new, alien world. Your first task is to set up shelters, explore the area. The variables are unknown: weather, landscape, even the tools they brought with them, many of which were newly developed.” She removed her hand and glanced around the group. “I would have expected some deaths at the beginning, due to the usual accidents that befall a new group. But forty-two out of three-hundred suggests something along the lines of a natural disaster. They could have sent out an exploratory group that crashed, or simply disappeared. Maybe there was an earthquake or hurricane, something of that nature.”
“Look, arguing about what may or may not have happened isn’t going to get us anywhere.” Mac looked at each member of the group in turn. He didn’t really want to put himself into a leadership position with these people, but he was being left with little choice. “This was a one way trip, you all knew that better than anyone. Whatever happened down there, if anything, isn’t going to change the fact that we’re here now, with nowhere else to go.”
“Brennan’s right, people.” Alex pressed his hands on the table and stood, leaning forward. “Nothing can change our destiny or direction now. We’ll just keep trying to make contact with whoever is still down there, and at least give them a heads up to our impending arrival.” He straightened. “In the meantime, I suggest you try to paint as clear a picture for your teams as possible on what little we have.”
“Is there any way to communicate with this AI? Ask it what’s going on?” Mac glanced at Ron. Their resident computer expert wasn’t as up-to-date with the quirks of an Artificial Intelligence unit as Mac thought he should be, but it wasn’t his place as Pilot to interfere without permission.
Ron shook his head. “No. I mean, yes, but it isn’t cooperating. That unit’s old, maybe it doesn’t have the power it should have. I dunno.”
“I tell you what,” Mac leaned closer, allowing the other members of the group to continue their conversations. “Let me download its entire file to my AI and I’ll see if I can tweak it.”
“Would you?” Ron’s eyes lit up instantly. “I’d appreciate anything you think you can do with that thing. I studied these models, but this is my first hands on. They’re so old.”
Mac nodded. “No problem.”
“All right, people.” Commander Alexander stepped to the door and projected his voice through the small room. “Let’s get to work.”
Everyone scattered, hurrying about their business and trying not to fret too much over things they couldn’t control. Mac managed to duck away from the crowd waiting for them in the gangways and get to the cockpit without being seen. Once inside, he flipped the door lock and sat down in one of two large chairs with a heavy sigh. Beta 9 was clearly visible in his view screen now, twinkling bright blue in the distance and growing larger by the hour.
As was the obvious inexperience of the group speeding toward it.
Mac turned the audio on his AI unit to conversation mode and leaned forward over his console.
“Download all the files from the colony’s computer and store a backup copy. I have a feeling whatever we don’t figure out now might come in handy later.”
“Agreed. Shall I display the physical data, Captain? This report includes some nice visuals.”
“Yes.” That was something he hadn’t looked at yet. Now was as good a time as any to see if they had grass.
The display in front of him flickered to life as the computer ran the file while still downloading the rest of the data. Mac watched the view of Beta 9 change from the bright blue of orbit to a more muted blue of the atmosphere as the probe made its descent. The first thing visible through a light layering of clouds was a mountain range spanning the entire hemisphere. Large, jutting rocks of blue and purple topped with a heavy snow pack filled the camera for the next full minute. When the probe reached the last mountain, it moved forward over a long valley dotted here and there with forests, lakes and rivers.
“So, they do have grass.” It was a strange color, almost lavender, but it was definitely grass the probe was flying over now.
“It appears to have a slightly different hue than the grass of Earth, but not quite the brown as Ergo.”
“Who cares what color it is? It’s grass.”
The landscape opened up to a bowl ringed by knobby hills in a semi-circle, with a river snaking through the middle where the original colony was to land. Huge, oddly-shaped trees dotted the valley, but the hills were bare and open. Mac leaned closer to the screen as the probe landed and scanned the nearest tree. According to the probe’s data, instead of leaves or flowers, the trees covered themselves with a fur that provided photosynthesis during the growth period. Each branch was incredibly thick, ending in a downward scoop that created a hollow the size of a comfortable adult’s chair.
“Not much good for shade, but they’d make for some pretty interesting furniture. Let me see a more current view, after they landed.” The screen flicked once, then presented an entirely new view from the archive recently downloaded. The bowl now sported several large buildings forming a U, with a courtyard of sorts in the center and the required Bureau of Exploration flag planted three yards away from the front door.
The buildings were standard military issue, designed to assemble in hours and last a lifetime. Dull white with large windows of shatterproof plastic, and metal shutters built to withstand hurricane strength winds sustained for up to twelve hours. Standard assembly included trenching out subterranean levels for storage and shelter in extreme weather or unpredicted conditions. Large rooms that could be partitioned off for privacy were designed for utilitarian uses, while banks of computational and diagnostic equipment built in made them desirable for scientific as well as military ventures.
All in all, very unattractive.
“What kind of data do you have from that download?” Mac studied the screen, taking in the sights of this new alien world.
“Aside from what you already know, we have some information on the growth cycles of both native and imported crops. The water is not only drinkable, but very healthy due to an unusual but highly beneficial bacteria. That’s what’s giving the water its bright blue solid color, as opposed to the transparency of water as we know it. Mild climates appear to be year ’round. Several of the larger herbivores are edible as well as much of the sea life. And yes, Captain, the Earth coffee bean plant grows nicely here. Data indicates a large crop was planted the first week and has prospered.”
“Sounds like paradise.”
“Certainly a highly desirable planet.”
The next images showed the colony two weeks after landing, with people scurrying about and children playing both in the courtyard and on one of the large trees. Mac watched a young boy with dark, curly hair slide down the arm of a thick branch and land in the scoop, laughing. “So, what sort of snake is hiding here?”
Mac sat back, running a hand over his short hair as he watched the screen. “Can you find the cause of death of those first forty-two colonists?”
There was a pause, then the screen showing the children playing was replaced by data flashing by.
“Much of this appears to have been encrypted, which would explain Mr. Christman being unable to extract it.”
“Is that your assessment of Christman’s computer skills?”
“Of course not, Captain. It’s merely an observation of his experience in data recovery and extraction. These colonists are simply lacking in field experience. I’m confident that will improve over time.” The note of smugness in the slightly feminine voice emanating from the speakers was unmistakable. “This AI is an Adam Unit, Model 5-1. They were notoriously touchy and hard to communicate with. A flaw that wasn’t discovered until many of these units had already shipped out. It seems to have encrypted much of the data with a code only it knows, but there is some information here I can uncover.”
Mac stood and stretched, letting tired muscles pull and twist. “So, what can you find that Ron couldn’t?”
“All forty-two members died the same night.”
Mac glanced down, not wanting to sit again so soon. “That would go along with the doctor’s theory of natural disaster.” He popped his back again and sighed with the feeling. “Show me.” The screen froze on a list of names, all followed by the same date. Cause of death listed as accidental. “Could this have been some kind of environmental trauma? Hurricane? Earthquake, maybe?”
“There’s no evidence of either of those.”
“This was three weeks after landing?”
“Search the files for the next reported fatality.”
“That’s where the encryption is stronger, but I think I can get some of it.”
A feeling Mac had hoped never to experience again was creeping under his skin. All the years of fighting an enemy he had no personal quarrel with, watching friends blown apart inside their own ships as payment for doing their duty. All the pain and suffering on both sides for reasons known only to the Bureau. All of that should have stayed behind. There was no place for it here, no room on the crowded transport vessel. But the feeling creeping over him and settling into his stomach was a reminder that these instincts never leave you. They become you.
Mac’s attention focused again on the screen as he scanned the data appearing there. “What the hell…?”
When his third attempt to reach the Commander failed, Mac gave up trying and flipped off the intercom. “Keep decoding that data as best as you can. I’ll be in the Comm room.”
“You’d better hurry, Captain, they’re about to make contact.”
Mac had to push his way down the corridors through the excited crowds of scientists still giddy over their first batch of information. Small, impromptu parties had erupted in nearly every lounge. Groups of individuals ran back and forth with new information and new theories, eager to share them with colleagues. He didn’t have the whole story any more than these people did, and probably had more common sense than all of them put together, but they weren’t going to be prepared to handle what they were about to find out.
When he entered the Comm room he hit a wall of bodies, all straining to see forward where the large screen hung from the ceiling. Mac glanced up, seeing only static, then started to worm his way through the bodies toward the front of the crowd. People stepped aside to let him through, then closed in behind him just as quickly. His goal, Commander Alexander, stood at the head of the group, leaning over the console.
“Ben, we have to talk.” Mac put a hand on the Commander’s shoulder, trying to pull him aside.
“Brennan, good, you should be here.” He smiled, oblivious to Mac’s urgency. “We’re about to make contact, but we’ll only have a brief window, before we lose them to the rotation of that moon.”
Mac shook his head. “There’s something you need to know. The colony, it’s–”
A sudden burst of static blasted over the ship’s speakers, interrupting all conversations.
“Approaching vessel, this is Colony Group One, Adam Unit Five reporting. Welcome to Oblivion. We’ve been expecting you.”
The silence that followed that auspicious announcement was broken only by the continued static of a blank screen. Mac turned back to the Commander.
“Did he say Oblivion?”
“I’m Commander Alexander, of the BSE Kensington. Adam Unit, did you say Oblivion?”
The screen crackled again, but refused to show an image to go along with the voice. “Pardon me, sir. I believe the last publicized designation for this planet was Beta 9. The residents have since changed the name to Oblivion.”
“Can’t we get visual on this?” Ben glanced around the room.
He was never going to gain any control of this situation unless he took it. “Let me have a look.” Mac motioned for the man in the seat before him to vacate, then took over the controls, fine tuning the gain.
“Adam Unit, I would like to speak to your colony’s Chief of Operations.” Ben spoke to the snowing screen.
Mac turned up the gain, but the fuzz only thinned out slightly. “There’s something wrong on the other end.”
“What the hell?!” A voice, distinctly human, burst over the speakers. “Five, why didn’t you tell me?”
“I believe I have the situation under control.”
Mac stared at the small screen before him, aware of all eyes in the room focused on his back. The new voice crackling over the speakers had brought a hush to the entire ship, all waiting for their Captain to magically produce a picture they could focus on. “Who am I speaking with?” He adjusted the volume. “My name is Captain Brennan. We’re trying to establish visual but there seems to be a problem on your end.” He paused, wondering if the human voice or the AI would respond. The familiar feeling creeping over the back of his neck wasn’t helping any.
“We’re going to lose contact in a few minutes,” Ben whispered urgently over Mac’s shoulder, staring at the smaller screen now as if it would display something the larger one wasn’t picking up. In a few short minutes, their ship would be rounding the moon, matching an orbit that would take several hours to clear them out of the magnetic field.
“My name is Bryce.” The human voice was the one to return, still heavy with static, but very urgent in its tone. “Are you here for rescue?”
The question sent a murmur of surprise through the room that Ben hushed with a wave of one hand. “Rescue? No, we’re the second colony group. Are you the Chief of Operations? Is the rest of your group still located at the original landing site?”
“What are you doing with that?”
Mac felt his jaw clench while they all listened to the exchange between the human voice and the colony’s AI. If he was right, this Bryce person was the only–
“Look!” Someone from the back of the room called out.
The entire room looked up as the screen before them filled with a brighter fuzz, then smoothed out to a clear picture. Instinctively, Mac looked down at his own screen and saw exactly what everyone else did. First glance showed a room filled with banks of blinking lights and switches, exactly the same as any other prefabricated buildings used by so many organizations. What made this one unique was the man standing in front of the screen. He was young, about mid twenties, not remarkably tall, with shoulder length brown hair curling here and there. Two small hoops of silver sparkled from the lobe of one ear, while bright eyes of an odd color, something between blue and lavender, stared into the screen before him, obviously having some trouble taking in what he was seeing.
Mac glanced at the crowd, then back to his screen. Poor kid was being bombarded by the image of a room full of curious scientists who themselves saw only one subject.
“Are you the colony Chief?” Ben stepped forward in an attempt to set himself apart from the throng staring up at the screen. “I’m Commander Alexander. We’ve come to join you.”
There were many kinds of fear a man, or woman, could experience. And just as many ways to express it. But terror had only one look. Behind those blue-lavender eyes, Mac could see that look as clearly as the hand running through the long, dark hair.
“No.” The word was quietly breathed, directed below the screen, but the gain on each microphone picked it up clearly. “You have to go back!” His eyes widened as he looked up again. “Can you turn back?”
Ben held up a hand again to silence the confusion spreading around the room. “Bryce, is there someone else in charge there I can speak with? Perhaps you didn’t understand, we’re the second colony segment. We’ll be landing in less than twenty-seven hours. Is there a colony Chief?”
Bryce shook his head again, searching the screen of faces. “There is no one else.”
Panic was going to bubble up any second now. Mac could feel it in the room around him. He’d seen civilians panic on ships before, but these were trained scientists. Would they act any differently, he wondered?
“We’re about to lose the signal,” someone announced.
It was time to take over. “All right, just take it easy.” Mac drew the young man’s attention and managed to get him focused on his eyes through the crowd staring back at him. The eyes that held terror inside changed slightly when they found his. “We’re going to lose contact in two minutes. I have the data on your situation. There’s nothing to be afraid of, trust me. ”
Bryce’s eyebrows knit together as he glanced down quickly, out of camera angle. “You sent the data?”
“All of it?!”
Before anyone could hear the machine’s reply, the Kensington lost all audio and visual contact with Oblivion.
* * * * *
I have to apologize to you, Brennan. I should have come here more prepared.” Commander Alexander shook his head slowly as he gazed out the view port at the large moon the Kensington was slowly moving beside. “I asked you to come along because of your training and military background. You have experience and a level head. I just didn’t realize you might be the only one among us who did.”
“You prepared as best you could with what you had, Ben. No need to apologize for that.” Mac shrugged, glancing at the others in the room while speaking to the Commander’s back. The man had let enthusiasm and excitement overshadow the unknown, but he could hardly blame him at this point, having waited so long to get this far.
“Brennan’s right,” Bill Pursich agreed. “This team is trained, but untested. You and I and Lise are the only ones even old enough to have any hands-on with this kind of thing, Ben. Hell, the three of us should have been out here over twenty years ago. If it weren’t for that damned war, we would have been. And we would have had a better crew.”
“And we might have been killed, like them,” Lise added, glancing at Mac. “I think our Captain here has enough experience to keep us together.”
This job of his was getting more complicated by the hour. “My biggest concern isn’t what’s waiting for us down there, but what we’re bringing down to meet it.” Ben turned from his moon watching and met Mac’s gaze as he spoke. “You have inexperienced people, yes. But they’re also very highly trained, and they should be prepared for any contingency.” He paused, looking at all three occupants of the small conference room. “They knew, as well as I did, that coming out here was a gamble. We had no way of knowing what to expect once we got here, but we all took that chance anyway. Humans adapt, it’s what we do best.” He looked at Lise. “There’s at least one human down there who’s survived all this time, so the planet’s not uninhabitable.”
“And that one human should be able to tell us what happened to everyone else.” Bill’s eyebrows arched as he glanced over at the doctor. “They have to be somewhere.”
Lise shook her head slowly, looking up at Mac. They’d gone over the files together, trying to make sense of it all. “From what I can tell going over this data for the past seven hours, he just may be as much in the dark about what happened as we are.”
“Explain.” Ben sat down next to her, eyebrows knitting together.
“Well, it took some research, but between Mac and me, we think we’ve pieced some of the download together.” She indicated the printed sheets spread around the small table. “There’s a listing of passengers and crew from the first group, and mention of a Bryce Keegan. He’s the only Bryce mentioned, so I believe we have the right one. Son of Nancy Keegan, the colony’s Chief of Operations. He was six years old when they landed.” She reached for a sheet and scanned it for a moment. “His father is listed as donor 0078-132-B.52 and not a registered member of the colony.”
“So, if this kid’s been here since landing, why is it he wouldn’t know what happened?” Bill asked, looking from Mac to Lise.
“The first deaths, those forty-two in the third week after landing, happened when he was six years old. One month later, another twenty died. The next month, seventeen deaths are reported.” Lise looked at Ben. “Then they go for nearly four months before five more deaths, all in one week. After that, the data becomes heavily encrypted and very hard to put together, until this.” She shoved a sheet toward the Commander.
“Six years after they landed, we found evidence of a disturbance inside the colony.” Mac leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. “For reasons we can’t explain, they never left the original buildings, never began any construction other than those dwellings brought with them. It’s not exactly clear why, but we found a report of an attack inside the colony’s research building.”
“An attack? By whom?” Ben was trying to scan the sheets, but there was too much information to absorb and not enough time.
“Are you saying someone inside the colony was doing this?”
“We don’t know, Bill.” Lise interjected. “All we can find is a report of an attack, unspecified in nature, that resulted in seven deaths.”
“That doesn’t explain why this guy wouldn’t know.” Bill looked at the doctor, jaw clenching. “This Bryce kid, you said he wouldn’t know what happened.”
“He might, he might not.” Mac rubbed tired eyes with the fingers of one hand. He felt weary, but he knew it wasn’t from a lack of sleep. Cassandra’s voice echoed through the back of his mind, giving him a headache.
“There’s a medical report, dated ten years ago…” Lise picked up the sheet and read aloud. “Subject: Bryce Keegan. Evaluation: Two weeks after severe head injury, memory of events still sporadic and inconsistent. Subject recalls location and personal information, however recollection of current events and other colony details remains damaged. Diagnosis: Memory loss appears to be permanent and compounded by psychological trauma of undetermined cause.”
“Psychological trauma of undetermined cause?”
Lise handed him the sheets. “I’m sorry, Ben, that’s all there is. Like I said, the data is heavily encrypted in areas, making it impossible to decode.”
Ben shook his head and tossed the plastic sheets onto the table, where he watched them slide quietly to a halt.
“Which poses another question.” It was so obvious, Mac was beginning to worry about having to mention it. “The colony was expecting new arrivals. This group might be twenty years late, and a few thousand short, but I don’t get it.” He looked at each one in turn, settling on Ben. “If this AI was designed to record data and prepare reports for the second group, why has it encrypted everything? Why was the computer making first contact with us, and not the colonist in charge?” Ben nodded as if he’d already guessed the direction Mac was going. “It sounded to me like this kid wasn’t aware the computer had contacted us, or even uploaded the files. And I don’t know about the rest of you, but I saw fear in his eyes. And I don’t think that was just the strange color.”
“No, I saw it too.” Ben sat back in his chair, gazing at the ceiling. “Almost as if there was someone in the room he was afraid of, but he was the only one there. He thought we were a rescue ship, so there’s something down there he fears.”
“Wait, hold it just a second here.” Bill held up both hands, looking rather confused. “Are you two suggesting that there’s a murderer down there? One man couldn’t possibly knock off forty-two people in one night. Let alone get away with it again and then hide everything in the computer record. And if that’s the case, it means the murderer, or murderers, are still there. This Bryce guy was what, six years old when it started?”
“I didn’t say I had all the answers, Bill.” Mac shook his head and held up a hand in defense. “I’m just offering up another possibility.” He sighed. “Hell, for I all know, man-eating goblins live in the trees.”
“Or that computer has taken one step over the edge.” Ben shook his head. “I’ve heard that theorized, but it’s never happened before.”
“Questions are something we’re overflowing with,” Lise interjected. “It’s answers that are in short supply. And there’s only one place we’re going to find them.”
“I’ve got one more question for you.” Bill looked around the room. “What do we tell our people?”
It was the same everywhere. Mac was beginning to realize that, and he hated it. When he first enlisted, he and his buddies would complain about being sent on missions without knowing why. The brass almost never told the soldiers the story behind this or that raid or battle. After enough promotions and medals, Mac found himself in the position of knowing far more than he ever wanted, and withholding the full story from his pilots.
There were times when he craved that ignorance.
“They’re your people, Ben. But this is their home, good or bad. Right now, I think everyone’s best chance lies in us all being on the same page.”
Ben nodded, staring at the table. “I agree.”
“So do I.” Lise reached over and patted Ben’s arm. “Look on the bright side, Ben. We’re here. The planet is everything we hoped for and then some. We don’t know if there will ever be another group sent out here. Let’s go build a world.”
Lise glanced at Mac and he nodded. “Listen, whatever did happen… whoever Bryce is, he’s survived it. Your group is trained and ready. Give them a chance, and they just might surprise you.”
Ben laughed shortly. “That’s what I’m afraid of.” He stood, pushing the chair back. “Well, we’d all best get to it.”
“Pardon me, Captain.” Mac’s wrist unit sparked to life. “Course corrections are required for the final stages of orbit.”
“Affirmative.” Mac stood, looking down at the table’s occupants. “Well, I have a job to do. I’ll leave you three to yours.” He left the room using a side exit that led up a utility ladder to the bridge’s side entrance, thus avoiding the curious who still filled the corridors and observation stations. Explanations weren’t his responsibility on this voyage. Just get them there in one piece, then keep the peace.
“Why doesn’t that sound so simple anymore?”